A British biographer offers salient glimpses of Israeli life and culture.
For two weeks in May 1978, Fraser (My History: A Memoir of Growing Up, 2015, etc.) and playwright Harold Pinter (her future husband) visited Israel, each for the first time. Pinter, a Jew, felt afraid that he would “dislike the place, the people.” But he was pleased by both, as was Fraser, raised a Catholic, who prepared for the trip by reading biographies of major Israeli figures. Both were well-known, with connections that afforded them privileged experiences. They stayed at an artists’ colony, making frequent trips to biblical and historical sites, often in the company of prominent writers, and they socialized with the cream of Israeli society: playwrights, actors, journalists, and politicians, such as Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem. They also connected with Pinter’s cousin, living on a kibbutz, whom he had not seen for 30 years, and visited Shimon Peres and his wife in their apartment. At the Armenian Patriarchate, they ran into Jacqueline Kennedy, “sweet as ever.” One evening they met Anthony Lewis, finishing up a tour of the Middle East for the New York Times; Lewis characterized Israelis as irritating, unable to see how others see them. “They won’t even listen,” he said. Fraser agreed that Israelis are insular but still found them “just wonderful,” even while noting her discomfort with Jews’ “us and them” attitude toward Arabs. Arab culture, Israelis believe, “prevents assimilation.” Fraser’s astute descriptions of people, ambience, architecture, and climate (she complains frequently of the oppressive heat) include Pinter himself. He could be a bit prickly, although easily soothed by an offering of beer or Scotch. The trip was revelatory for him: “I definitely am Jewish,” he announced to Fraser. “I know that now. But of course that makes it more complicated. I am also English.” Fraser responded that she could live in Israel “in every way except one, and that’s not being Jewish.”
A slim volume graced by lively observations.